Denken Ist Danken: A Tribute To Leonardo R. Estioko SVD

While the Societas Verbi Divini (SVD) celebrates with joy and gratitude its 100th year of missionary presence in the Pihilippines, it solely mourns the passing of one of its illustrious sons, Fr. Keonardo Estioko, philosopher and educator. Some space as allotted here in his memory thanks to his colleagues in the academe and the editors of this respected journal.

Not a few thinkers, Fr. Estioko included, contend that biographical anecdotes, while perhaps of personal interest, reveal nothing of philosophical consequence. Human interest stories such as contracting malaria in the bush mission, falling into a ditch, working in a monastery as a gardener, owning a pet dog, falling head over heels in love, working in the slums, rubbing elbows with the powers – that – be, or becoming mentally deranged, are the domain of the biographer or the historian – maybe even the intellectual historian – but not of the philosopher. Martin Heidegger drove to this point home by starting his lecture on Aristotle with three laconic sentences: “He was born. He lived. He died.” Finito. End of story. Obviously Heidegger was exaggerating here the ahistorical aspect of thought. I wonder though if we can fully understand his jargon of Angst, Eigentlichkeit, Enstchlossenheit, and Geschick apart from his personal life, his amorous dalliances and his political entanglement. But that is digressing a bit too much.

Let’s turn back to Fr. Estioko, whom his confreres, students and friends fondly called Fr. Nards. He was born. He lived. He died. Just like Aristotle. Just like any mortal being. I think Fr. Nards would have probably favoured such a terse description for his epitaph, knowing his proclivity for brevity. As our mentor in Christ the King Mission Seminary he repeatedly reminded us of the KISS principle – Keep it short and simple – as we were struggling with our term papers and theses. Gifted with a keen sense of humour he jolted us with flashes of insight that made the unbearable lightness of being a student slightly more bearable: “A treatise could be likened to a skirt of a lady: it should be short enough to arouse curiosity, and long enough to cover the subject.” Wading through the thicket of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason many of us aspiring thinkers complained to him, “We can’t understand Kant”! To our consolation he recounted Avicenna’s futile attempt at reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics – 40 times, without understanding it – until he found illumination from the little commentary by Al Farabi. Presenting Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to his senior class Fr. Nards quipped that concise and clear sentences demand more serious thinking than convoluted ones. In a manner of, a persistent refrain he quoted the sober line of the Viennese philosopher, “What we cannot speak about, we must consign to silence.”

He was born. He lived. He died. Truth to tell, I have the nagging feeling that this sanitized formula does injustice to a life lived in full like that of Fr. Nards’. I hope he will not squirm in his grave when I breach the telegraphic formula and fill in the spaces with biographical anecdotes interwoven with the lives of his grateful confreres and students. What we cannot consign to silence, we may speak about, with due apologies to the author. As an educator and a preacher, Fr. Nards must have appreciated the pedagogical value of stories oozing with life. “Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and departing leave behind us, footprints in the sands of time,” as Longfellow waxes poetically in the psalm of Life. Indeed, life is far too complex a psalm to be summed – up in three amputated sentences.

Fortunately there is such a thing as an obituary, which does not fall under the genre of a philosophical treatise. An obit, to wit, allows a glimpse of the Lebenswelt of the man behind the thought. After all, it is the lived – world of common human experience with its lights and shades that serves as the seedbed for reflection. Primum vibere, deinde philosophari. We join herewith the battle cry to rehabilitate the doxa of the Lebenswelt and to salvage it from the cold rationality of epistemic discourse.

It was in the Lebenswelt of Urdaneta, Pangasinan that Fr. Nards was born on November 13, 1944 to Marciano Estioko and Leonor Reasonda. Growing up in a large family with 10 brothers and 3 sisters, Fr. Nards sensed at a tender age the call to serve God’s people as a priest. After finishing high school in Urdaneta he entered the SVD – run archdiosecan seminary in Binmaley. Inspired by the dedication of the German missionaries, he decided to join the SVD and transferred to Christ the King Mission Seminary in Quezon City in 1963. It was in Lebenswelt of a religious missionary community that he nurtured his interest in philosophy and education. The regimented Teutonic curriculum and the communal spiritual exercises such as the celebration of the liturgy, consciousness examen, meditation and retreat strikingly echo the practices of ancient philosophical schools. As Pierre Hadot, the eminent French scholar on classical antiquity, puts it, philosophy – understood in the classical sense as a Way of Life, rather than as a salaried profession – demands a constant conversion and care of the soul. Such a way of life can be cultivated and exercised propitiously in a community of wisdom – seekers.

Fr. Nards’ religious formation led him to the major seminary in Tagaytay which may well be called the “Hochburg” (stronghold) of German philosophy and theology in the Philippines in the 1970’s. There he wrote his master’s thesis on Heidegger’s being – towards – death. In the course of his philosophical journey Fr. Nards must have realized that philosophy as a way of life is learning the ars moriendi, the art of dying gracefully. Later, the theme must have taken on an existential import as he wrestled with the possibility of the absolute impossibility of his Dasein. Towards the end of his battle with cancer he seemed to have mastered the art of befriending the inevitable, still teaching philosophy with his natural humor and Socratic Gelassenheit.

The SVD school of theology overlooking Taal lake and volcano became home to Fr. Nards until his ordination and onwards. It is the school that has produced contextual thinkers and theologians who have impacted the Philippine academia and society in general: Mercado, Miranda, Miranda Beltran and Pernia, among others. The same school proved to be a seedbed – indeed, a seminary in the truest sense of the word – for radical ideas mobilizing students to opt for the grassroots, to work with the Federation of Free Farmers and to join the underground struggle against Marcos dictatorship. The names of De la Torre, De Mesa, Balweg and Ortega come to mind.

In 1072, the turbulent year of the proclamation of martial law, Fr. Nards received the sacrament of ordination. While some of his fellow confreres were sent to foreign missions, Fr. Nards was asked to remain on his home turf, the Divine Word Seminary of Tagaytay, to teach philosophy from 1972 to 1975. Thereafter, he was sent abroad by his superiors to work on his doctorate on John Henry Newman titled The Reasonability of Religious Belief at the Gregoriana in Rome. Cardinal Newman, whose story of conversion deserves another article, wrote an apologia for religious faith against the background of British empiricism. In his An Essay in Aid of the Grammar of Assent he sought to answer the questions: Can I believe what I don’t understand? Can I believe what cannot be absolutely proven? These and other questions occupied the mind Fr. Nards for the next three years in the Eternal City.

After successfully defending his dissertation in 1978, Fr. Nards returned to Tagaytay to serve as Dean of Studies at the major seminary until 1982. Subsequently he was transferred to one of the oldest schools in the country, the University of San Carlos in Cebu City, wherein he served as Vice President for Academic Affairs until 1988. In this capacity he immersed himself in the administrative side of education and forged friendships with educators from different faculties and universities. Open to all disciplines, his predilection though had always tended towards liberal arts education. His philosophy of education was deeply inspired by Newman’s The Idea of a University, a series of discourses, which reinvented the idea of a Christian university in the 19th century and continues to spark discussions today. A university, according to the Oxford scholar, must cover a broad range of subjects, advancing from the purely technical to the philosophical and theological. Some issues that Newman raised – the place of religion and moral values in the university context, the competing claims of liberal and professional education, the character of the academic community, the cultural task of literature, the relationship between religion and science – have found their way into Fr. Nards’ Essays on Philippine Education. His concern about the misguided priorities of the Philippine educational system saw print in his History of Education – A Filipino Perspective, a work which highlights the influences of previous systems and theories of education on the current Philippine situation and challenges the Catholic Church to maximize ‘its potential to spearhead reforms that could lead to more humane educational institutions. It is momentous that Fr. Nards pursued this agenda to the very end in his last work, published a few weeks after his death, entitled Philosophy of Education – A Filipino Perspective.

After the university stint Fr. Nards was assigned in 1988 to Christ the King Mission Seminary, back to the cradle of his SVD vocation. As soon as he took office as Dean of Studies he upgraded the quality of personnel and faculties of the school, seminary colleges in the Philippines. Aside from being a professor, he also held other positions such as the Rector of the mission seminary and Director of the Arnold Janssen Secretariat. About his different functions he said in a jest, “Everybody can become a rector, but not just anyone can be a teacher”. Teaching philosophy, playing a midwife to the birthing of our own questions, was a passion he readily shared with other institutions of higher learning in Manila. Fr. Nards knew well how to draw out the best from his students and accompany them in their own search for meaning. Despite his illness he once left the hospital before finishing his chemotherapy treatment and rushed to attend the thesis defence of a graduate student. To his friends he admitted that his dream was to die in the classroom teaching philosophy, a dream, which did not materialize as he passed away during the semestral break. While still alive, he was conferred the award as “The Most Outstanding Filipino – SVD Professor of Philosophy” in August 2008 on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Christ the King Mission Seminary in recognition of his indefatigable efforts to enhance the quality of the philosophy department of the mission seminary. With his natural humility Fr. Nards accepted the accolade while in a wheelchair.

On a lighter side, Fr. Nards sought diversion and comfort in the company of his dog Sacra for whom he had a soft spot. That dogs and philosophers click is anything but new in the history of philosophy. As we know, the Cynics were so called – kynikos means dog – like in Greek – because of their affinity to dogs. The first Cynics, beginning with Diogenes of Sinope, embraced their title: they barked at those who displeased them, disdained Athenian vanity and hypocrisy, and lived from nature, independent of the luxuries of civilization. In this sense, there was something cynical, or prophetic if you may, about Fr. Nards’ outward simplicity, a kind of gentle protest – bark he never did – against the trivial pursuits of the world. Of course, the presence of the dog in his office and in the premises raised some eyebrows. I am sure Fr. Nards would agree with most canine lovers when they say, “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole. We give dogs time we can spare, space we can spare and love we can spare. And in return, dogs give us their all. It’s the best deal man has ever made.” For the love of his pet he wrote Gone to the Dogs, a phenomenology of the dog’s life touching on sexuality, birthing, parenting, growing, playing, communicating and parting. The book was a smash hit.

It must be said, however, that Fr. Nards’ affection for his dog is secondary only to his love for the Divine – Word – made – flesh. The Divine Logos Incarnate was his raison d’ĂȘtre, the source and summit of his SVD vocation which he lived out in his commitment to scholarship (Scientia), his humanness and humour (Virtus) and his missionary spirit of self – giving (Devotio). When he took over the Arnold Janssen Secretariat it was for him like journeying back to our SVD mother house in Steyl and drawing primal water from the spiritual wellsprings of our finding generation. In his 2 – volume work, Witness to the Word, Fr. Nards reflected on the humble beginnings of our religious life and our missionary activity in the Philippines. With Fr. Nards, we SVDs look back with gratitude on the last 100 years of our missionary service in the country. Indeed, there is much reason to give thanks, to remember, to rejoice and to renew our commitment. As Fr. Nards marched into the Great Beyond to meet his Creator in the afternoon of October 21, 2008, he also advanced, so to speak, into the SVD Hall of Fame joining those sterling Witnesses to the Word worthy of emulation. We, his confreres and students, are ever thankful to him for his exemplary life, for playing the midwife to our fledging thoughts and for passing on to us the wisdom of the ages. As we grapple with our own life’s questions, we cannot but thank and honour Fr. Nards, our mentor, along with those Witnesses ahead of us who paved our way, “Denken ist Danken”, if I may borrow the pietist slogan which Heidegger loved to quote. To think is to thank.

Fr. Nards was born. He lived. He died. He will be raised up on the last day. So be it.

Philippine Academy of Philosophical Research. Karunungan: A Journal of Philosophy. Espana, Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. Print. 2009. Print.